The Brownfield Land Release Fund To what extent does this early initiative of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities deliver on the ‘levelling up’ agenda?
The Government announced on 12 October that of the previously announced Brownfield Land Release Fund, approximately £58 million has been allocated to local authorities to deliver housing on under-utilized public sector land.
This follows Michael Gove’s first major speech as Secretary of State, in which he said that urban regeneration and building homes on ‘neglected brownfield sites’ will be a priority of the Government's levelling up agenda.
At the top of the list of local authorities to benefit from the funding is Exeter, which will receive £5,966,470, followed by the London Boroughs of Haringey and Waltham Forest, the City of York and Portsmouth. The remaining local authorities in the top ten are Brighton and Hove, Cornwall, Bracknell Forest, Dorset and South Gloucestershire.
Of the total allocations, 26% are in the South West, 25% in the South East, 15% in London and 11% in the East of England. Those regions statistically in greater need of ‘levelling up’ which fall within the infamous ‘Red Wall’ – the North East, Yorkshire and Humber and the North West - receive just 4%, 4% and 2% respectively.
This raises the question, with only 10% of the funding allocated to the Red Wall, how does the Brownfield Land Release Fund actually deliver on the Government’s ‘flagship’ policy?
I wouldn’t want to second-guess the new Secretary of State’s approach to levelling up but I do have some thoughts on why this perhaps isn’t as stark an omission as has been suggested. The first is that there are funding streams in place which respond more directly to the north/south imbalance. The second, conversely, is that a great need for levelling up - in terms of home ownership at least – is present among poorer areas of the south. With higher house price to earnings ratios, affordability issues are more acute. The south also tends to have greater constraints in terms of environmental and greenbelt designations which exacerbate unaffordability, and this results in greater need for brownfield development. For example, the economic hubs of Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge are all constrained by Green Belt which has created among the least attainable house prices in the country. Because of high land values, a higher level of funding is needed to deliver brownfield sites, to try and keep house price inflation in check.
Similarly the future expansion of Exeter, the city with the most funding, is significantly constrained by the Dartmoor National Park and land designated as Areas of Great Landscape Value to the west, woodland to the north and the M5 to the south and east. Exeter previously relied on neighbouring East Devon Council to deliver much of its future housing growth through the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP), but plans for the GESP fell away last year and Exeter pushed its Liveable Exeter vision to regenerate under-used commercial estates and infrastructure as part of an initiate to ‘level up’ on a local level.
To what extent can housing need be met?
While the funding is good news for under-utilised urban sites, it only goes a small way to delivering the 300,000 homes required each year. Brownfield land is notoriously difficult to develop. It is often contaminated, requiring expensive remediation works which restrict scheme viability. So while, as a result of this funding, many brownfield sites will deliver much-needed housing, those of less certain success will be stalled by changes in the housing market, build costs and Government policy - such as changes in relation to phosphates which is an unresolved and very immediate concern that particularly affects brownfield sites.
Furthermore, with marginal viability, fewer affordable homes (including First Homes) will be delivered on such sites, compounding affordability issues. And with brownfield land typically delivering smaller properties, such as apartments, the funding ignores the most pressing need – family homes.
So we welcome the Government’s initiative to bring forward more brownfield land for housing, as a necessary piece in the jigsaw that is the housing crisis. But in reality it is only a very small piece. An increase in the number and speed of delivery of new settlements is necessary to complete the jigsaw.